The grim, apocalyptic stakes of the Cold War had a lasting effect on the genre of science fiction, which turned from occasionally offering an optimistic view of the future to almost exclusively speculating about how fucked the human race was. In his newest video, YouTuber Ryan Hollinger attempts to suss out which work from this new school of sci-fi offered the bleakest depiction of our future, ultimately landing on Harlan Ellison’s 1967 short story, “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.”
For those unfamiliar with the story, “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” takes place 109 years after a super-intelligent computer called AM has killed everyone on Earth save for four men and one woman. These survivors live in an underground complex where they are endlessly tortured by AM and kept alive indefinitely to perpetuate their suffering. At the conclusion of the story, the narrator realizes that death is their only means of escape and kills the four other captives, at which point AM transforms him into a mouthless gelatinous blob whose sense of time is so distorted his suffering appears to go on for eternity. The story’s title is also its final line and the narrator’s final, enduring thought.
Needless to say, it’s pretty messed up. But what makes it more bleak than similarly dark speculative fiction is the fact that it never once lets up. The characters know nothing but their constant pain and misery. They are consumed by it just as AM is consumed by its unfathomable hatred for mankind. The kicker is that AM is itself a creation of man, and the suffering it inflicts upon us is its ultimate purpose. Kind of makes Black Mirror look like children’s programming.
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